My son’s grade 4 class were doing a photography project recently and as part of my campaign to win Dad of the Year, I volunteered to give them some advice about the basics of photography. The very first thing I told them was that without light there is no photography, and this is exactly what I would tell anyone who wants to learn the basics of photography.
You can use any camera you want—if you don’t have light you’ll never make an image.
Aside: This was a great lesson and just what a difficult task it is getting through to nine-year-olds. While they made all the right noises and seemed to be paying attention, at the end of the project it was pretty difficult to see where the advice had landed! Here’s hoping today’s article find a more receptive audience.
We are slaves to light
It’s not just a catchphrase, photography really is all about light. As photographers we are slaves to it, like surfers to waves, anglers to fish, or stargazers to clear skies. If you want to capture important moments the most important thing is to be in the right place at the right time with your camera at the ready. Because in these situations expression trumps aesthetics. When your mom meets her baby grandson for the first time, you can’t worry too much about the light, you’ve just gotta get the shot. But if you are determined to make beautiful photography then you need to be pretty much obsessed with light. You need to become a student of light, aware of it in every situation and observing how it works and how it changes the appearance of things. If you want to shoot portraiture you need to know when it is flattering and when it is unflattering and what you can do to make the best of whatever light is available.
Does this mean that we always need to have lots of light? Or are there opportunities to create strong and interesting work in low light situations? The answer is a resounding yes. And today I’m going to help you navigate the sometimes murky waters of low light photography.
One of our primary concerns when we are making photographs is our shutter speed. We need to keep it above a certain threshold in order to get sharp images, but we also need to keep it below a certain threshold lest our images be under exposed. If our shutter speed drops below that lower threshold we might end up with camera blur as a result of the movement of our hands. One of the ways that we can overcome this problem is by using a tripod. The tripod is a really useful piece of kit and definitely one of the first items I would recommend any photographer to buy. In fact I wrote a whole article recently about how tripods can help you take better photographs, and it’s well worth a read if you want to learn more about our three legged friends.
There is another clever solution to the problem of camera shake and that is image stabilization. There are actually two kinds of image stabilization: lens stabilization and camera-based stabilization. Lens stabilization has been around for quite a while now and is the de facto standard for stabilization in DSLR’s. But nowadays we are starting to see more in-body stabilization with the rise of the mirrorless camera.
Stabilization works by counteracting the movements of your hands and allowing you to shoot at lower shutter speeds, and because of this it is a highly prized feature among photographers. There really is no downside to stabilization except that you have to pay a premium for it. This is certainly the case with lenses, but stabilization seems to be becoming more of a standard feature for mirrorless cameras. I’m also a big fan of stabilization because it allows you to shoot better videos hand-held.
Shoot to the left
One of the simplest techniques you can use to get better shots in trying circumstances is to ‘shoot to the left’. This is a reference to something called a histogram which is a graphical representation of the exposure of your image. The more underexposed the image is the more values you will see on the left of the histogram. So if you deliberately keep your shutter speed up, in order to get a sharp image, but in doing so underexpose your image, you can then increase your exposure afterwards using your favorite editing software. And if you shoot in RAW mode you get tonnes of leeway to push and pull your exposure after the fact.
Pump up the ISO
Our final strategy for taking great photos in low light situations is to pump up the ISO. ISO essentially refers to the sensitivity of the sensor in your camera and it is something that we can raise or lower as needed. Our preference is always to keep it as low as possible because as you raise the ISO you will gradually start to see digital noise which degrades your image. It’s fine in small doses but at some point it becomes really detrimental to your photographs. A lot of cameras nowadays will allow you to manually select your shutter speed and aperture and auto select your ISO which is pretty handy but I generally prefer to select my own settings so that I can make sure the ISO stays as low as possible.
Sony is known to make some of the best low-light performers on the market, like the amazing a7 III full-frame mirrorless.
Be like a rock
Finally, here’s a tip for those situations where you forgot to bring your tripod, you’ve maxed out your ISO and you need to drop your shutter speed to an uncomfortably low speed. Start by squeezing your elbows to your side as you hold your camera firmly to your eye and spread your feet wider than shoulder width. Then press your back against a wall or a pillar and hold your breath as your click the shutter button. You’ll be surprised how well this technique can work!
I hope I’ve shared something useful with you here today, feel free to drop a comment below!